Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, JJ Abrams)

ForceAwakens

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, resistance figurehead Luke Skywalker has gone missing. When a map of his location falls into the hands of a scavenger, she’s hunted down by the evil First Order…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

GOOD GUYS:

* BB-8 is a cute, very emotive, football-sized droid with a free-moving head that seems to defy the laws of gravity. His owner, Poe Dameron, gives him a map leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts, but BB is then separated from Poe and meets a young woman called Rey… Creating a droid that could match the popularity of C-3PO and R2-D2 was an enormous challenge. BB-8 is an enormous success.

* Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) is an elderly man living on the planet Jakku who has information about Luke. He passes it on to Poe before being killed by the First Order, the fascist military organisation that has replaced the Empire defeated in the original trilogy. You can’t shake the feeling that Tekka should be more important than he probably is.

* Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a pilot working for the resistance movement. He’s a boys’-own-adventure hero with a cool jacket and a winsome smirk. At the start of the film he’s collecting a zip drive from Tekka, but then the First Order attack. To keep it safe, Poe gives the information to BB-8 and is then captured. He later escapes with the help of a defecting stormtrooper called FN-2187, who Poe renames Finn… But Poe is seemingly killed when they crash back on Jakku (boo). Later, it’s revealed that he survived (yay) and we next see him leading a fleet of X-wings in to save our heroes from the bad guys. He also leads the resistance’s assault on the First Order’s base.

* Finn (John Boyega) is introduced as a stormtrooper called FN-2187. During his first ever mission, a colleague smears blood on his helmet so we can see which one he is (helpful!), but FN recoils at the horror of having to kill innocent people so decides to go AWOL. He helps prisoner Poe escape (because, he admits, he needs a pilot) and they quickly form a bond of friendship; Poe even suggests a new name: Finn. After Poe apparently dies, Finn wanders the desert planet of Jakku then bumps into BB-8 and a young scavenger girl called Rey. Together the trio do a runner when the First Order arrive looking for the droid. Embarrassed about his past, Finn lies and says he’s from the resistance. He fancies Rey but is scared of being caught, so soon decides to leave for a distant star system. However, when the First Order activate a weapon that can destroy entire planets, he chooses to stay and fight. He’s soon reunited with Poe, who didn’t die, and their manly hug is… sorry, there’s something in my eye. Teaming up with two legends from the old rebellion, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Finn heads off to rescue Rey, who’s been captured by the bad guys. During a final confrontation with lead baddie Kylo Ren, Finn is badly injured.

* Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a young, feisty, brave and resourceful woman living alone on Jakku. She survives by scavenging junk from crashed star destroyers; she lives in a derelict AT-AT walker; and she has a homemade doll of a rebel pilot. (She sure likes things from the original trilogy.) We learn that she’s been waiting on Jakku for her family to return, but it’s been a very long time since they abandoned her there. Joining forces with Finn and BB-8, who are on the run from the First Order, she suggests they steal an old, decrepit star ship to flee the planet. (The moment when the camera pans left and shows us the ship she means – the Millennium Falcon – made my cock surge when I first saw this film.) However, after leaving Jakku they’re very quickly captured by – how’s this for a coincidence?! – Han Solo and Chewbacca, the Falcon’s old owners. Han is soon impressed with Rey’s know-how and attitude so offers her a job. Later, while hiding in a friendly bar, Rey is drawn into a basement by distant voices. She finds a lightsabre in a chest, touches it and hallucinates: she sees a First Order ship, a hooded figure with a droid, bad guy Kylo Ren, and herself as a child being left on Jakku. (She also hears voices, which we recognise as Yoda, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi – the first two are clips from old films but Ewan McGregor recorded new material as Kenobi.) The bar’s sage owner, Maz, explains that the lightsabre belonged to both Anakin Skywalker and his son, Luke. Presumably it was found on Bespin after Luke lost it in The Empire Strikes Back. (Maz says that’s a question for another film– I mean, time.) Freaked out, Rey runs off but is captured by Kylo Ren. She uses her nascent Force powers to resist his telepathy-rape, then to trick a stormtrooper into letting her go. She ends up fighting Kylo with Luke’s lightsabre; because she’s awesome she wins. (Oh, how John Williams’s music swells when she uses her telekinesis powers to pulls the weapon into her hand!) After the resistance’s victory over the First Order, Rey sets off with Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon to find Luke Skywalker…

* Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has, since we last saw him, lost three of the loves of his life – he separated from Leia, his son turned evil, and someone stole the Millennium Falcon. At least Chewbacca is still at his side. When he finds the Falcon again, Han meets Rey and Finn, who recognise him as a smuggler, a general and a war hero. He’s about to throw them off his massive freighter when they let slip they’re on a mission for the resistance. At the mention of his old friend Luke Skywalker, Han confirms that all the myths about him are true. He tells us Luke’s star pupil defected to the bad guys, so Luke fled in shame – reportedly to find the first Jedi temple. Later, Han is reunited with Leia Organa – they clearly still love each other – and together with the rest of the resistance they plan an attack on the First Order base. Han leads the team sent to deactivate the planet’s shield (well, he did the job so well in Return of the Jedi) and the mission brings him into contact with his son – Kylo Ren. Han tries to get through to him, but Kylo kills him with a lightsabre. (I was just numb with shock when I first watched the death of my childhood hero – I had no idea it was coming.)

* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is still hanging out with Han. He’s injured in a fight with two rival gangs who want BB-8, then is later enraged when Han is murdered.

* Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) is a short alien with sphincter-like eyes hidden behind massive glasses. She runs an out-of-the-way bar on a planet called Takodana. When Rey, Finn, Han, Chewy and BB-8 arrive, two customers of the bar clock the important droid – one reports back to the resistance, the other to the First Order. Maz is a CGI creation, but there’s no Jar Jar Binks dislocation here. She fits in with the real actors splendidly.

* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) arrives on Takodana to rescue our heroes when the First Order attacks. There’s a touching reunion with Han and Chewy, who she clearly hasn’t seen for ages. Leia is more world-weary than the last time we saw her, but still a bad-ass leader: she ably co-ordinates the resistance’s attack on the First Order planet. When Han is killed, she senses his death via the Force and has to sit down. When Rey returns from the mission, they share their grief with a wordless hug. (Chewbacca, meanwhile, wanders off unnoticed. JJ Abrams has since admitted that Leia’s apparent lack of interest in him was a mistake.)

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, the only actor to be in all seven Star Wars movies) has lost an arm at some point since we last saw him. Its replacement is red for some reason. He hangs out with Leia at the resistance’s base. Also there is R2-D2, but he’s been in a low-power mode since Luke left. He switches back on near the end of the film to complete the map. (Now in his eighties, Kenny Baker couldn’t play R2 this time. He’s credited as a consultant.)

* Kalonia (Harriet Walter – yes, they cast Harriet Walter for a nine-word role) plays a dryly funny doctor who tends to an injured Chewbacca.

* Temmin ‘Snap’ Wexley (Greg Grunberg) is an X-wing pilot we see a couple of times. Grunberg is an old pal of JJ Abrams, who has cast him in many TV shows and films.

* Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose) is still helping out the resistance, as is Nien Nunb (Mike Quinn). Both characters were in Return of the Jedi.

* Statura (Ken Leung) is another member of the resistance’s executive committee.

* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)… I’ve thought long and hard about this and have concluded that my single favourite moment in all of cinema – the most emotionally affecting, the most audacious, the most successful – is the final scene of this film. Rey uses the map to track down the planet where Luke Skywalker is in exile. The Millennium Falcon lands on a rocky island, and Rey begins to climb a steep footpath. There’s no dialogue, just bewilderingly emotive music. She climbs and climbs until finally she reaches the plateau, and standing on the cliff is a man in a hooded cloak. Slowly, he turns round to face her (and us) and pulls down his hood… Now, I’ve known who Mark Hamill is since I was a toddler. I’ve seen masses of behind-the-scenes footage and read many interviews; he was probably the first actor I knew by name. But when the character on the cliff turns round, it’s not Mark Hamill standing there. It’s *Luke Skywalker*. I can’t find a better way to explain this. In the moment I first saw this scene I was totally transported into the fiction: the real world didn’t exist. There was LUKE SKYWALKER, a hero of my childhood back after more than 30 years. Bear in mind that Luke had been absent from all the trailers and TV spots and promotional posters. And they’d held him back until the last few seconds of the film. He looks at Rey as she holds up his old lightsabre. Neither of them says anything… And roll credits. A stunning bit of storytelling.

BAD GUYS:

* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) dresses all in black, wears a scary helmet and speaks in a deep, synthesised voice: he might be the film’s villain. There are early references to him having a mystery past, and then later we learn that he’s the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. He looks about 30, so perhaps he was conceived on Endor after his parents first got some alone time. They called their child Ben. Yes, he was named after the pseudonym used by Obi-Wan Kenobi – a bloke Leia never met and Han knew for an afternoon. Luke tried training the lad in the ways of the Force, but it went wrong and Ben turned evil; he renamed himself Kylo Ren and rose to be a bigwig with the fascist First Order. He gets angry very easily and talks to the burnt helmet of his grandfather Darth Vader: FRUITLOOP. After capturing Rey, who has seen the map leading to Luke, Kylo is frustrated when she resists him. He then encounters his dad, Han, for the first time in a long while. After a heart-to-heart, Kylo kills him, which pretty much guarantees that the character can never be redeemed a la Anakin Skywalker. (Some things you can’t forgive.) He then confronts Rey and Finn, injuring them both before Rey fights back.

* Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is a silver-suited stormtrooper leader. She’s basically Guard #1.

* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is the military leader of the First Order, who butts heads with Kylo Ren. They seem to be of equal rank. He later gives a foaming-mouth, Hitler-like speech to thousands of soldiers.

* Colonel Kaplan (Pip Torrens) gets a line or two. Another First Order officer-type is played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, while Daniel Craig did an uncredited cameo as a stormtrooper.

* Supreme Leader Snoke… or possible Snote? Smote? Snate? Spoke? Spote? Stoke-on-Trent? Why can’t I lock this name in my head? …(Andy Serkis via motion-capture-driven CGI) is the shadowy boss of the First Order. We only ever see this alien creature via a hologram projection, so we don’t know if he’s actually 50 feet tall or whether he has his communicator’s settings too high.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: How to pick just one? For the sheer elation it creates, the X-wings gliding across the water is worth mentioning. But the action is uniformly excellent.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Oh, so many choices. Finn not being able to find a specific tool (Rey: “No. No. No. The one I’m pointing to!”). Finn colluding with BB-8. Almost anything BB-8 does, in fact. Finn giving Chewbacca medical attention. Kalonia giving Chewbacca medical attention. Han and Leia’s good-natured bickering (thank you, the universe, for letting me live long enough to see more of this). The hynoptised stormtrooper dropping his gun. The stormtroopers turning round and walking away when they hear Kylo Ren throwing a tantrum. Finn taunting Captain Phasma. And much more. It’s the funniest Star Wars film yet.

MUSIC: Well, it was never going to be shit, was it? John Williams continues his monopoly of scoring Star Wars. The use of classic themes from the original trilogy works sensationally well.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this movie on Friday 18 December 2015 at the Everyman Baker Street in London with Fraser Dickson. The film had been released the day before and I’d spent 24 hours avoiding spoilers. It was worth it. Seeing this film knowing next to nothing about the plot was one of *the* joys of my adult life.

REVIEW: As soon as it starts you know you’re in safe hands. The standard Star Wars opening – logos, burst of music, crawl of text with full-cap words and ellipsis – is in place, and it’s followed by an opening shot full of scale. This movie looks like Star Wars, it sounds like Star Wars, and it feels like Star Wars. Part of the reason for that is because the film deliberately echoes elements from the 1970s/80s trilogy. The story, the dialogue, the character types, the production design, the cinematography, the locations… I won’t attempt to list all the specific correlations between this film and the originals, but there are many. (A Google search throws up numerous lists.) It’s in keeping with the storytelling formula used by George Lucas, the former creative boss. Similar things happen to different generations. And this new generation – courageous Rey, headstrong Finn, dashing Poe, adorable BB-8 – are charismatic, fun, interesting and worthy successors to Luke, Leia, Han and co. Speaking of those characters, what a brave choice it is to hold them back. Han and Chewy don’t appear until the 38-minute mark; Leia and C-3PO not until 76 minutes, Luke not until after 121 minutes. It’s amazing chutzpah to resist showing Luke Skywalker for over two hours. It builds a wonderful tension in the plot, and brilliantly the classic characters are not just meaningless cameos. They’re integral to the story, and are found in instantly interesting situations. In the 1990s there were Star Wars spin-off novels set years after Return of the Jedi. Han and Leia were happily married with twins on the way; the Empire had been defeated; everyone had puppies. This film wisely ignores all that. *Of course* Han and Leia wouldn’t last, it says. *Of course* Han would go back to smuggling. *Of course* there’d still be bad guys in the universe. The Force Awakens might be a love letter to the first three movies, but it’s still a drama. On a technical level, the film is even more impressive. For a start, it’s just so wonderfully *there*. It feels physical, palpable, with heft and weight and a sense of reality. After the cartoony artifice of the prequels, this makes a geek’s heart sing. Also, like in the films directed by Abrams’s hero Steven Spielberg, the frame is often packed full of detail yet – crucially – never feels cluttered. There’s great energy in the direction, but it’s always controlled and focused. The camera moves for good reasons: to tell us about character, to develop the story, to sell a gag. As good as many recent genre films have been, this is just a more polished style of filmmaking. Many shots take your breath away with either their audacity or their economy – or both – but the film is never showing off. It’s a film where the focus-pulling is impressive, for pity’s sake. Are there flaws? Probably. There’s too much quoting of old Star Wars movies. The First Order’s planet-destroying weapon is Abrams plagiarising himself (see 2009’s Star Trek). It’s sometimes not clear where planets are in relation to each other. Snoke doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. But do I care? Not in the slightest.

Ten moof-milkers out of 10

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s